Skin Is In: A Discursive Look at the Rise of Skinhead Styling in Men’s Fashion


Skin Is In: A Discursive Look at the Rise of Skinhead Styling in Men’s Fashion


“I’d seen the future of masculinity and it was moisturized,”quipped Mark Simpson, the writer who coined the term ‘metrosexual’ to describe image-conscious male consumers and the sexy targeted advertising that stoked their vain and  “unmanly passions.” His prescient essay “Here Come the Mirror Men: Why the Future is Metrosexual” appeared in The Independent in 1994, propelling his career as the herald of late capitalist masculinity. Twenty years later, Simpson’s work remains convincing, but it does not account for an opposing trend, one sown by gay men’s attraction to a seemingly antagonistic subculture.

Today, the metrosexual is dead. The identity and its associated behaviors have been utterly standardized, accelerated into oblivion when Justin Bieber instagrammed his first shirtless selfie. The displacement of MNF (Monday Night Football) by GTL (Gym Tan Laundry) is a symbolic coup d’état; we’ve reached a post-metrosexual era. The humdrum features of traditional heterosexual life are not what they used to be.

Although metrosexuality reached its zenith among straight men, advertisers perfected their strategy in the gay community. “Metrosexuality was of course, test-marketed on gay men — with enorm­ous suc­cess,” wrote Simpson. It’s a Man’s World is billed as the first men’s style exhib­i­tion — but the Gay Lifestyles Exhibition, which fea­tures fash­ion shows and a whole range of ‘men’s products’, is already in its third year.”  While men’s fashion and “grooming” industries are more fractured than before, adapting to the frenetic and unexpected way certain trends flourish online, there is one (life)style that has been goading gay men in editorials, lookbooks, and on the runway: the skinhead.

If the metrosexual signified the placation of male power, then the skinhead look resuscitates machismo in the fashion realm. Despite the contrast between their visual styles, much like metrosexuality, the skinhead has enormous crossover appeal. According to sociologist Hilary Pilkington, it’s the “‘dark brutal force’ of the skinhead body” that makes the skinhead so appealing for gay and straight men alike. Contemporary fashion designers, stylists, and art directors are not working in a vacuum. The skinhead’s “‘hypermasculine veneer” is precisely why the visual style continues to thrive, fueled by an allure that has been buttressed by certain queer sets. “The skinhead body has undergone a profound eroticization for the outside gaze through the photographs of Slava Mogutin (2006), the subgenre of ‘skinhead’ films within gay porn, and the appropriation of its visual style as the ultimate sexual fantasy in gay circles,” says Pilkington.

Slava Mogutin’s first monograph, Lost Boys (2006), certainly influenced the skinhead spreads that fill magazines like Dust and dot the Tumblrs of brands (Cottweiler, Komakino) and aesthetes (St. Pauli Gay), but the photographic oeuvre only constitutes one chapter of the gay skinhead canon. In 1985 Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones founded the queercore zine J.D.s, which consolidated outsiders of the gay mainstream and began to parse their fixation with skinheads. Nothing was off limits, as Ashley Simpson explains in an essay from Reading Rock and Roll, “The macho category of ‘skin’ and the stigmatized homophobic label of ‘pansy’ are collapsed together in J.D.s in a way that underlines the instability of gender identity as well as the performative element of even the most exaggerated forms of masculinity.”

By the time LaBruce wrote, directed, and starred in his first feature film, No Skin Off My Ass (1991), the skinhead had moved front and center. The film dissects the skinhead “as the object of the queer gaze,” documenting the erotic escapades of a gay punk hairdresser and the skinhead he picks up in a park. LaBruce’s fascination with skins grew out of firsthand experience. “I even fell in love with a skinhead who hated fags, and, during our tempestuous relationship, got the shit beaten out of me on more than one occasion,” he recalls.

LaBruce would go on to explore the violent implications of self-hate and the contradictions of the deification of the skinhead as a queer hero in the 1999 art-porn film Skin Flick (the hardcore version is titled Skin Gang). The film splices together scenes of neo-Nazi skins having sex with one another and their queerbashing rampage. Overlooking the shock value, Skin Flick reveals the abject motivations of “closet skins.”  Murray Healy spells out their ulterior motives in his opus on the subject, “Whereas gay skinheads had adopted the skinhead identity because it refuted dominant expectations, rendered them highly desirable on a gay scene which valorized ‘real’ masculinity, and provided protection on the straight street, these ‘closet skins’ adopted the image as a disavowal of their homosexuality.”

Whatever the impetus, homophobic violence at the hands of fascist skinheads has always posed a dilemma for gays seeking the skinhead look. For some, skinhead style cannot be divested of neo-Nazi, right-wing extremism. This is one point the 1992 “Skin Complex” episode of the British television series Out laid bare. As a man who identifies as both Asian and gay, Shaky Shergill found the adornment of boots, braces, and bombers both troubling and intimidating, “You can’t separate dress from politics: people will see a skinhead, not a gay man or a liberal man dressed as one.”  On the other hand, some gay skins are aroused by the danger. As one claimed, “The implication of violence cannot be ruled out of the attraction.”

Given the skinhead’s real and imagined proclivity for violence, boots, Dr. Martens in particular, deserve special attention. Among gay skins boots are widely fetishized. They are props that complete the skinhead uniform, used to enact the ‘implication of violence’ during sadomasochist sex. As it turns out, the way gays skins and those with fascist inclinations embellish their looks is nearly indistinguishable. “Gay and Nazi skins are deemed to look more like each other than the other factions within the subculture; both tend to prefer completely shaved heads, tight T-shirts and jeans rolled up to reveal knee-high Doc Marten boots,” says Healy.

Over the past few seasons, designers like Raf Simons and Riccardo Tisci have exaggerated the fetishistic quality of skinhead regalia in their menswear collections. The boots in Simons’ 2014 fall winter menswear collection were “bulbous” behemoths, accentuating a silhouette of cartoonish proportions straight out of a skinhead comic strip. The references in Givenchy’s spring summer 2015 collection were more straightforward. Tisci outfitted models in black boots with white ladder lacing, some surpassing the knee and reaching excessive heights. Gosha Rubchinskiy takes a wistful approach. He frequently selects young models with shaved heads for his campaigns. Healy contends, “individual elements of the skinhead have always served a metonymic function to some degree.” But after decades of appropriation and recirculation in the fashion world, why does the working-class, hypermasculine mystique of the skinhead persist, and what’s with the resurgence of erotic skinhead imagery now?

The similarities between photographer Alasdair McLellan’s latest monograph, Ultimate Clothing Company, and Mogutin’s Lost Boys are telling. Both photographers typify an editorial style that Guy Trebay began to characterize in 2007. “This is not to say the magazines are pornographic, although the images they present are often sexually candid. Rather, they, like much of the gay art now being made — and so much art and music and culture of all types — seem to hybridize a generalized fetish for youth culture, for self-exposure, for the small and the intimate and apolitical,” Trebay wrote in The New York Times. What we are seeing now is the widespread inculcation of the “sexually candid,” apolitical gaze, a Tumblr generation unfazed by the skinhead’s fascist fringes, but attuned to trends. For all the pomp and circumstance, the fashion world’s auspices of luxe are undercut by the idolization of the youth cult. Unfortunately for designers, they are left to contend with an army of kids who can artfully assemble a set of subversive signifiers with the click of a mouse.

Art by Vince Patti